From a lavish sports bar to a mere hole-in-the-wall gas station, alcoholic beverages are everywhere. Their easy accessibility as well as its place in society as a celebratory tradition makes alcohol the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. With more than half of American adults partaking in alcoholic drinks, alcohol has become commonplace and even accepted in society. 

Because it is so frequently used, alcohol addiction can be difficult to distinguish from regular use. However, just because it can be difficult does not mean that it has to be. With the ongoing opioid epidemic, alcoholism is commonly undermined by addictions that some people think might be “more serious,” such as meth and heroin. In reality, all addictions are just as “serious” as the other, and knowing the proper information about withdrawal, addiction, and treatment for alcohol will better help understand this concept.

The most effective way to treat alcoholism is through early detection, and the longer someone waits before seeking treatment, the harder it is on both the treatment center and the patient. By procrastinating when it comes to getting the help you need, the chances of severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms and relapse skyrocket

What is Alcoholism?

As stated before, alcohol is the most commonly used and abused addictive substance in the United States, with roughly 18 million people dependent on or addicted to alcohol (approximately 1 in every 12 adults). More specifically known as Alcohol Use Disorder, alcoholism is defined by compulsive alcohol use, a negative mental and emotional outlook, and an inability to control alcohol intake.

When it comes to determining the cause of alcoholism in any one person, it is important to note that there are actually a multitude of factors that should be considered. The environment that someone lives in or has lived in, and even factors such as genetics and mental illness may have some control over their susceptibility to alcoholism.

Environmental Factors

The roots of addiction are most commonly traced back to the person’s childhood and exposure to alcohol at a young age. For example, the risk of someone potentially becoming addicted to alcohol is three to four times higher if their parent suffers from alcoholism. This exposure leads to children thinking that excessive alcohol abuse is normal, and they will take up alcohol much more quickly than normal. 

At a young age, children that begin drinking before legal age of alcohol consumption are much more likely than those that wait until they are 21. “Much more likely” can be specified down to six times more likely, which is an absolutely staggering number. When taking into account that children are six times more likely to suffer from alcoholism in the long run, the fact that more than 40 percent of all tenth graders drink alcohol. 

While not as influential, but still as urgent as alcohol abuse in K-12 grades, college is also one of the starting points for alcoholism. Many students, unable to handle their newfound freedom, will “go wild,” for lack of a better term. Freshman students showed some of the highest rates in substance abuse on campus, and while alcoholism is commonly represented by middle aged men passed out on the couch with a bottle in his hand, the “Young Adult” subtype is actually the largest fraction of alcoholics in the United States, accounting for roughly one-third of all alcoholics.

Genetic Factors

Although scientists have not yet specified a “gene for alcoholism” that determines if someone becomes addicted or not, there have been genes identified that can reduce the effects of a hangover while increasing the pleasurable effects of drinking. With the positives far outweighing the negatives in this situation, the likelihood of excessive alcohol abuse drastically increases.

In these cases, genetics indirectly correlate with the development of alcoholism. Once someone notices that they have the genes to drink with barely any drawbacks, they will more than likely experiment with their limit, going from binge drinking to abuse, and from abuse to addiction.

Mental Diseases and Illnesses

Because it is stigmatized, people try to avoid bringing up the fact that mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can be the root of an alcoholism problem. While suffering such conditions, someone may possibly use and/or abuse alcohol in an attempt at self-medication. At first, alcohol may seem to help and even treat a mental illness or disease. 

Over time, however, the chronic use of alcohol can and will lead to dependence and addiction, further snowballing the very negative effects that the person was treating via alcoholism. Depression may lead to suicidal thoughts and anxiety may lead to increased frequency in panic/anxiety attacks. 

What are the Signs of Alcohol Addiction?

The not-so-obvious change from general alcohol consumption to full-blown dependency and addiction can be pretty hard to spot. Fortunately, studies have picked up on a seemingly regular pattern that a user follows as they lose control of their consumption and behavior. 

The CAGE questionnaire was made at North Carolina Memorial Hospital in 1968 in an attempt to detect alcohol abuse and the behaviors associated with it. To satisfy the criteria for “alcoholism,” two of the following must be answered with yes:

  1. Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (an Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

Although not proven to be effective in treating other substance abuse cases, there are variations of the CAGE questionnaire that can be useful in treating other drug addictions.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcoholism can be very dangerous, and usually is. Although deadly, many people who know that they or someone they know is addicted refuse to seek professional help. As a matter of fact, less than 10 percent of people that suffer from alcoholism actually seek the proper treatment they need. One can only wonder: what happens to the other 90 percent? 

One of two things can happen. They will either continue abusing until it becomes severely detrimental to their health, or they will attempt to undergo at-home treatment. Most at-home treatment processes are very dangerous, and include the implementation of the “cold turkey” method.

Quitting something cold turkey refers to the sudden cessation of a substance in attempt at self-detox. Quitting cold turkey almost always leads to severe withdrawals, and should be avoided if at all possible. Instead of risking relapse and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, seeking professional treatment is always recommended.

Alcohol is a depressant and has a sedative effect on your brain. By slowing brain function and the speed in which information is communicated throughout the body, the continuous depressive effects of alcohol cause your brain to reprogram itself. When suffering from alcoholism, your brain is under fire from constant sedation. Because of this, the brain reprograms itself, working overtime to balance out the sedative effects of alcohol. Over time and as dependency and tolerance develop, your body works harder and harder. Suddenly removing all alcohol in your body causes it to slingshot from working overtime back to sobriety, causing some negative detox side effects. The body needs time to adjust back to sobriety, and quitting cold turkey does not allow for that readjustment time.

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Both in quitting cold turkey and medical detoxification, you are likely to experience some withdrawal effects. While medical detox offers a much more comfortable detox process and less intensive withdrawal symptoms than quitting cold turkey, the symptoms are generally the same:

  • Shaky hands
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headache
  • Nausea

Though these are among the more common symptoms, there are problems that may occur in roughly 5 percent of people going through alcohol withdrawals, called Delirium tremens (or DTs). These are very severe side effects of quitting alcohol, and someone suffering from more-severe-than-average alcoholism may experience the following DTs:

  • Confusion
  • Fast heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Excessive sweating

Additionally, there are some psychological symptoms of withdrawal that linger long after treatment ends. This is called Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) and can include symptoms such as long-term depression, unpredictable mood swings, sleep problems, and powerful cravings. Staying plugged into the recovery community through aftercare programs can help you manage the effects of PAWS.

What is Involved in Alcohol Addiction Treatment?

When treating alcoholism, there are many different factors that determine whether or not an inpatient or outpatient program is best. Determining the best option for someone suffering from alcoholism is very important in the success of the treatment. 

If the patient requires medically-supervised detox, it must be carried out at an inpatient center. It is important to note that in the case of alcoholism, detox is almost always necessary. This results in most alcoholism treatment programs consisting of inpatient care, where the patient can be medically supervised by experts. This is important due to the fact that 1 in 10 alcoholics will experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

Alcoholism treatment begins with a patient evaluation, in which a team of professionals decide on what your best treatment option is. Usually, residential alcoholism treatment as well as outpatient programs include a mix or all of the following addiction therapies:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Nutrition guidance
  • Exercise therapy
  • Relapse prevention plans
  • Support group work

The duration of treatment is largely dependent on the severity of alcoholism prior to treatment. It is extremely important to remember that alcoholism is a chronic, lifelong addiction and thus requires lifelong management. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of all alcoholism treatment alumni end up relapsing, so learning how to prevent relapse is vital.

Aftercare programs will allow graduates to interact with one another via group therapy, and case managers will gladly aid you in any problems or questions you may have regarding employment, housing, and everything else relating to life after treatment.

How Dangerous is Alcohol?

Despite the cultural acceptance of alcohol into society, the danger of alcoholism and alcohol abuse is very prominent and equally as dangerous. As the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, alcoholism contributes to around 88,000 deaths every single year. Chronic alcohol abuse can result in a few or many of the following:

  • Disruptions in brain communication, affecting mood and behavior as well as impairing decision making and motor skills
  • Severe heart problems such as arrhythmia and changes in blood pressure
  • Major liver damage such as cirrhosis, fibrosis, and alcoholic hepatitis
  • A weakened immune system, resulting in a higher chance of infection and disease
  • An increased risk of mouth, throat, liver, breast, and esophageal cancers
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, alcohol-related developmental disorders, and alcohol-related birth defects. These occur while a pregnant mother drinks during pregnancy.

Listed above are just some of the few issues that someone suffering from alcoholism may face, not to mention the extreme dangers of drinking and requiring cognitive functions. Driving under the influence of alcohol is extremely dangerous and, in 2015, 10,265 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (29 percent) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.

Alcohol Abuse Statistics

  • Up to 40 percent of all hospital beds in the United States are currently occupied by people who have health conditions relating to alcohol abuse.
  • In 2010, alcohol abuse cost the United States almost $250 billion. This is combining the cost of healthcare, criminal justice expenses, vehicular crash costs, and any damage to property.
  • Almost 30 people a day, in the United States alone, die from motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. When calculated, that roughly equates to a death every 51 minutes.
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